I’ve sailed on a number of different river cruises (active, kid-friendly, luxury) on a number of different European rivers, but I have never done a Christmas Markets cruise before.
Our TUI Rivers cruise on TUI Skyla was due to visit Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Koblenz and Mainz, but as reported in my earlier piece – How High Water Levels Affect a River Cruise in Europe – was disrupted (we flew into a different airport and skipped the first port stop).
But we were back on track after day one, and got to visit the gorgeous Christmas Markets of Cologne and Dusseldorf, as well as charming Koblenz, which stole our hearts.
Here are seven observations from our Christmas Markets cruise on TUI River Cruises’ TUI Skyla.
We sailed on TUI Skyla, but I could be writing about TUI Maya and TUI Isla as all three ships are identical, bar one small aspect – TUI Skyla has one additional cabin on the 3rd floor at the back. Otherwise, apart from the décor, they are identical.
The ships originally sailed as TUI River ships for the German market, but were given a significant makeover in 2018 to turn them into UK ships.
They look and feel, to all intents and purposes, new – and unexpectedly classy, which is not something I’d be expecting to describe a TUI vessel. You are greeted by original art designed by Dutch artist Suzanne van den Berg in the atrium, along with a lot of glass – including a dome at the top of the stairs – and gold and chrome fittings, which give it the look and feel of a four-star hotel. And, as it was the festive season, there was a lovely gingerbread display.
Everything feels fresh and modern, which is testament to the thoroughness of the refurb – from the public rooms to the carpets (fun fact: recycled from fishing nets), the furniture and the cabins.
We particularly loved the Bistro, on a lower level at the aft, a restaurant extension rather than a speciality venue, which was designed in a lovely pastel colour palette, and where we ate most evenings.
The lounge is lovely, but not big enough to sit everyone sailing (we were sailing full, with 155 passengers and its sits 142), so often there was overspill into the atrium where there is a small seating area and a cabinet of books.
The ship has 79 cabins, including 14 suites and five solos. Cabins look and feel fresh and modern, with light-coloured curtains and furniture, and very comfortable beds. Charging points are limited with one above the desk and the other at one side of the bed. Despite the refurb, both are European two pin, so take an adaptor. There are no USB ports. You will be pleased to hear that there are kettles in cabins, and not only that, fresh milk in little packets rather than powder packets, plus a mini-fridge.
We were staying in a French balcony, so we have sliding doors, which we often left open as it was so mild. We took a peek at the lower deck cabins (Standard Cabins, pictured above), which are smaller and although they have windows, they are almost on the waterline (if you can stretch to it, we would recommend a cabin on the 2nd or 3rd decks).
Bathrooms are compact and in frosted glass, so there’s a bit of a feeling of being on display, although it’s just an outline. The shower stall is a good size and has a glass door.
Worth noting: there is no single use plastic used onboard and there are two branded water bottles in your cabin for you to refill from the water station in the atrium.
Food, like everything else onboard is geared 100% to British tastes, so expect a full English breakfast as well as a wide variety of yoghurts, cereals, breads, smoked salmon and Marmite (and Vegemite, for any Aussie readers reading this).
What you won’t find are Continental-style breakfast buffets with regional meats, salads etc. In fact, there is little regional food on offer, unless you opt for the “German dinner” (see below). However, there are local wines, though these didn’t vary as we made our way along the river.
There is also a live cooking station at breakfast, where you can get a great omelette or poached eggs, and at lunch a fresh pasta cooked how you like.
Quality varies – it’s clear the team take a lot of pride in what they do, and presentation and service is outstanding, but sometimes the end result can be a little underwhelming. Portions are small, and even though there are five courses, we had on two occasions, to ask for a second main.
And enough said about the German Dinner the better. Let’s just say if you’re not keen on meat wrapped in meat, mustard soup and a small selection of hard cold cuts, then best to avoid.
However, the Gala Dinner was outstanding, as good as you’d get on a luxury line: beetroot salad, delicious mushroom cappuccino soup, a lovely prawn dish, followed by perfectly-cooked Black Angus roast beef with potato celery gratin (or a pumpkin potato steak as a vegetarian option), which was beautifully presented, and a trio of delicious desserts – a tartlet with orange cream and merengue, a profiterole and a Toblerone mousse.
And big kudos to the line for identifying every single allergen on the menu, offering a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian options and training staff to always ask if anyone has any allergies.
Worth noting: there is a tea and coffee station in the atrium, but if you need a decent coffee, you’ll need to get it from the Club Lounge, where Kadek will make you a barista brew.
You’ll never get bored on TUI Skyla – between the ugly jumper competition, the Christmas quiz, stretch classes, live music, port talks and fascinating lectures – Daisy the Cruise Director made sure our days were packed.
Of course, most people chose to explore the towns during the day, but if you came back by lunch time for example, there would always be something to entertain you.
The live music in the evening was mainly provided by the ship team, though we had a visiting group one evening. One unexpected highlight was the Silent Disco, which was well-attended and a lot of fun!
Another unexpected highlight was the Wellness Centre, which as anyone knows who has sailed on a river ship, is usually a cabin-sized room given over to a couple of exercise machines. Not so on TUI River ships, where the whole of the front of Deck 2 is the Wellness Centre and includes a hot tub, relaxation area, an exercise bike, a sauna and a shower. You can book the space privately, or just turn up.
The sauna and the hot tub were a wonderful thing to look forward to after a hard day’s walking around visiting the markets. Plus Raquel offered some (sparsely-attended) stretch classes.
And in Cologne, Dusseldorf and Koblenz, you have three of the best places to visit them. Also, bear in mind, it’s not just one per city – Cologne has five, Dusseldorf seven and Koblenz the same. The ship is great in that the team provides city maps and if you ask Daisy or a visiting tour guide, they will circle all the markets for you.
What’s fun, as we found in Dusseldorf and Koblenz, is finding one, wandering along, and then just walking into another. It’s a different set up in Cologne, where the main action is around the Cathedral, with much smaller ones dotted around the city (there’s even a little hop-on, hop-off) train you can take which visits each one for €15 per person.
Also, take time to visit at night, where they are even more magical (especially after a few Glühwein).
TUI River won the Best for First Timers and Best Value for Money in the recent Cruise Critic UK Editors’ Picks Awards and after a week onboard it’s clear why – this line offers outstanding value for money (pretty well everything is included, except for shore excursions and drinks outside of meals), with a warm, friendly crew that make this ideal for the first timer.